Twelve years into his run as the president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Terry Stewart could regale you with one cool story after another about his encounters with rock’s royalty. But, getting chummy with them isn’t important to him. What does interest him is whether musicians want to get involved with promoting the mission of the museum.
Stewart makes no bones about it: rock and roll has had a bigger cultural impact on the history of man than any other art form. “It aggravates people when I say that, but this is the raison d’être for this museum.” For starters, he proudly points to its award-winning educational programs, which facilitate learning among young people of all ages, teaching everything from science to finance. Among hall of fame museums, his is the nation’s top draw, attracting 450,000 people annually to the imposing I.M. Pei-designed facility overlooking Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio.
Next year, the museum will open an extensive archive at nearby Cuyahoga Community College, which will be nirvana for scholars. And the museum, in addition to its much-anticipated hall of fame induction ceremony each year, has new shows all the time, the latest being Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power. And, of course, there are the collections—floor after floor of gems illuminating the life of rock and roll (a phrase coined by Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed), from its birth in the early 1950s to today.
It’s only appropriate that Stewart, who has the mien of a 1950s hipster, presides over it all, a job, he says, in which every day feels like the weekend. A hopelessly addicted collector—he owns more than a half-million LPs, 45s, and 78s (did we mention the jukeboxes, the posters, the Vespas, the neon clocks?)—Stewart lobbied relentlessly for the top job, a position that had seen much turnover before his arrival. Established in 1995 as a nonprofit, after outbidding 17 cities for the rights to host it, the museum, somewhat in financial and organizational disarray, immediately benefited from Stewart’s business background, most recently as the president of Marvel Entertainment for eight years.
But his most important talent may have been his adoration for rock and roll, which hit him at gale force growing up in Daphne, Alabama, first checking out Ray Charles and James Brown in concert when he was “always the only white kid in the crowd.” It was a harbinger of the music that would rattle the windows of Delta Kappa Epsilon, one of the indelible memories of his days at Rutgers, where he made lifelong friends and got a full scholarship to a great education after passing up on the U.S. Military Academy. “I have loved music and pop culture all my life,” he says. “It is who I am, and this is what I do.”
(This story is excerpted from “Star Gazing” in the Spring 2011 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)